Order in Chaos, New York
The Richard Taittinger Gallery
19th Jul 2022
Through his practice, Tsai contemplates the ideas of life, death, modernity, and tradition. In 2007, he created the signature floral skull for Alexander McQueen, which has become one of the most iconic artworks featuring a skull. Embodying the important motif of “reborn from death, and beauty in decay,” the floral skulls have transformed from flattened images to 3-dimensional structures that bear intricate narratives from Dunhuang murals, Summer Palace manuscripts, and quarantine life. Quarantine Skull (2022) captures the daily realities of the pandemic which point to a pattern of life shared by the East and West. Meticulous process and labyrinthine collage call to mind Richard Hamilton’s pioneering work. Like Duchamp’s Fountain, this piece asserts the integration of life and everyday objects into art while engaging in the conceptual and structural rigor of its modernist forebears. Quarantine Skull also ponders upon the fact when everyone is forced to rest for the first time ever, we start to reflect on the capitalist system and where our priorities lie. The red and blue pill in the skull’s open mouth evokes the “red pill” and “blue pill” in The Matrix, asking, “Will people choose the blue pill to stay in the current system or the red pill to create new ideologies beyond the existing frameworks?”
From his earliest days as an artist, Tsai was drawn to the art of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Inspired by their playful vocabularies, his early pieces forge, at times, absurd tableaus such as Western superheroes battling with characters from great novels of Chinese literature. Guan Yu (2022) is representative of this body of work, depicting Guan Yu, the legendary military general from the Han dynasty, playing chess with Superman and referencing two Chinese historic tales. In one such amalgamation, Superman takes a sword in his hand, alluding to the allegory that anyone fiddling with a sword in front of Guan Gong would embarrass oneself. In the other, Guan Yu scrapes poison off the bone from the historical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, still fixated on the chess game. The piece represents the artist’s inner conflict between eastern and western cultures while representing political tension on a global scale between China and the U.S. Superman contends with a broken sword, Guan Yu with a broken arm. In the background, the Buddha symbolizes peace and consonance, implying that despite competition or companionship, the two nations ultimately need to find a common ground, moving forward toward the goal of global peace. The work exemplifies Tsai’s impetus for political activism and the theme of this exhibition— balance and chaos. Moreover, living in London and Shanghai allows Tsai to be constantly exposed to the differences between the two cultures. Through his work, which serves as an instrument for introspection, Tsai strives to find an inner balance between his values and perspectives cultivated by the two sides.
In the latest series of works, Tsai conflates abstraction and descriptive imagery to intimate diverse stories, as seen in A Hundred Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix (2022). This work signifies Tsai’s conceptual shift. He utilizes a pictorial language that combines Chinese traditional landscape painting with Salvador Dali’s interpretation of positive and negative spaces. In his approach to wedding two cultures, Tsai tactfully hides Guan Yu and Buddha, who are observing a post-COVID reality. A test strip floats in the river with other objects from the artist’s childhood—a Rubik’s cube, marble, a plaster statue, and a Tang sancai horse. A railbus, a shared memory in Chinese culture, is also depicted, though now obsolete. These objects reveal the artist’s reminiscence about his hometown and fond childhood memories. After years of living in England and the pandemic, Shanghai has transformed into an entirely different city from the one he remembers. Time, history, nostalgia, and the present critical moment weave together awaiting close analysis.